Have you ever stopped to think how the infrastructure planning of the past affects your life today? Chances are you’ve flushed the toilet, answered your phone, turned on a light, taken a train or a car across a bridge or through a tunnel in recent days. If you have, you’ve experienced the long term results of infrastructure decisions taken decades, or even centuries ago. In the same way, infrastructure decisions that we take today remain crucial to our own future reality, and that of future generations of Australians.

Infrastructure means the physical structures and facilities that our society needs to operate: everything from buildings, transport networks, energy and power supplies, and telecommunications networks.

Infrastructure is critical to creating jobs, increasing GDP, and building the resilience and liveability of our communities. But some things will need to change if Australia is to get the productive, sustainable infrastructure we need. Infrastructure planning requires its own infrastructure. Decision making criteria, stakeholder engagement processes, and reporting obligations are the bridges and tunnels that underpin good planning and joined up, successful outcomes.

Economically it’s become well known that infrastructure is massively important, and more so when the economy slows. Who’s going to be paying your wages five years from now, or 10? If you work in the building sector, or any of the many industries that supply and service it, the answer to that question is likely to be infrastructure.

Boom’s over, interest rates are low: time to jump

With the mining boom ending, and manufacturing continuing its long, slow contraction, we need to spend money on infrastructure projects simply to ensure that we have jobs and that money is circulating in our economy. (And as several experts have pointed out recently, with costs to borrow money at an all time low, now is the perfect time to lock in financing for infrastructure projects).

In the long term, too, our infrastructure needs to be as productive as possible if Australian business is to remain competitive into the future, with maximum productivity across our transport, water, electricity and telecommunications networks.

Good infrastructure can lessen the load on the environment

Our environment is under increasing strain, with species extinctions on the rise at the same time as our cities and towns generate increasing amounts of waste. This means that sustainability of infrastructure is increasingly important – it should help our country to use less energy and water, while minimising waste.

Our society is changing, with our population set to increase while also growing older. At the same time, climate change means our weather will become less predictable and more extreme. Other long term trends are becoming apparent, with households using less energy and travelling fewer kilometres by car. All of these factors mean that our infrastructure, and the processes that underpin its planning and delivery, will have to change and improve to meet these challenges.

A new report by the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council (ASBEC), compiling the views of 35 representatives of industry, government, and academia, calls for a new pathway to sustainable and productive infrastructure to meet the economic, social and environmental challenges we face.

Decision-making is a major barrier

There are major challenges we must overcome if we are to create the pathway to deliver the infrastructure Australia needs.

Politicians find it hard to look beyond the short term election timetable when approving new projects. It takes too long to act on new infrastructure proposals, with politics, funding constraints and stalled decision making processes stretching the timetable out so that years elapse between concept and reality. Business cases for proposed new infrastructure are often rudimentary, confidential, or non-existent.

Focus on goals, not process. And think 30 years not 15

Overcoming these challenges means we need to take the long view. Infrastructure Australia plans to release a 15 year plan, but ASBEC believes a 30 year plan would better, with a focus on the big picture rather than the incremental steps we need to take: where we need to go, rather than how we get there.

The 30 Year Infrastructure Plan would have clear outputs, in the form of a national special masterplan, clear and transparent rationale, national, state and regional lenses for assessing infrastructure projects, make decisions based on the total aggregated evidence, and regular reporting against agreed outcomes and targets. A five year review cycle would help to ensure things stay on track.

Get rid of the politics

This long term, visionary plan should be apolitical, removing infrastructure decisions from short term political distortion, and should engage stakeholders to inform the design and delivery of the plan. And it should contain pathways to guide the implementation of the plan through the key processes of engagement, planning, decision, funding and execution.

The plan should contain a clear decision framework so that all proposed infrastructure can be assessed using the same criteria. It also needs to take account of the big picture at a national level, while also understanding state and local factors.

Community could become engaged, not opposed

Community opposition has been a factor in stopping some infrastructure projects. While this is partly down to a cultural shift where citizens feel more empowered to be part of decisions that affect them, ASBEC believes that many problems could be avoided with better community engagement and communication about proposed infrastructure. The 30 Year Infrastructure Plan would contain clear processes for this engagement.

It’s appropriate that Infrastructure Australia deliver this plan, working with state and territory governments. It is best placed to independently, transparently, advise governments on infrastructure spending, engage with key stakeholders, support continuity in project selection and remove the endless electoral cycles form the mix.

Most importantly, it can coordinate and collaborate with state and territory governments sharing research, data, skills needs and information, and providing for integrated infrastructure planning across state borders.

Suzanne Toumbourou

Most people would agree that we want a future Australia that is economically robust, with good jobs available, where our cities become more liveable as their populations grow, and where our environment is cared for so we can all enjoy the clean air, clean water and unique wildlife that define our country.

If we’re going to make that future Australia a reality, the first thing we need is a pathway that has the right planning and decision making powers to guide our investment in sustainable, productive infrastructure across the nation.

Suzanne Toumbourou is executive officer Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council

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